To The Darien Jungle: Panama from Above

About a month ago I made the journey across the Darien Gap. I crossed overland from Puerto Obaldia, Panama to Turbo, Colombia. The Darien Gap is meant to be one of the dangerous places in the Americas, not only for its natural challenges but also because it is the largest route of travel for narco-traffickers between South and North America, it is also a major hiding spot for remaining members of the FARC guerrilla and bandits of all types. I took a route along the comparably safer Caribbean Coast. This is the story of my plane ride to the beginning of my overland journey, the story of the crossing will be featured as the cover story to the inaugural Vagabundo Magazine in December. I hope you enjoy this preview as well as the photos that go along with it.

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The shoes of the tiny plane hop quickly from the tarmac which is still wet from a Panamanian afternoon shower. I peer through the tiny oval window which is speckled with rain thinking about where I’m heading: the infamous Darien Jungle. The plane was six hours late in its departure, and the fact that I can see the pilot just feet from me reading a book as he flies us over the capital doesn’t exactly fill me with much confidence either. Perhaps I wasn’t meant to take this flight, maybe I wasn’t supposed to go to the Darien.

The pilot flips the page of his book then does the same to the plane putting it on a bank sideways impressing us with views of the city.

Flight crew waiting for us to board.

Panama City aerial

Taking off over Panama City

Panama City Skyline

The Skyline of Panama City from well above it

I’m sure the pilot was just reading the manual… or Gabriel Garcia Marquez

As we make make our way down the coast the plane’s movement seems less like flight and more like hovering. We float over examples of the potential that Panama has for tourism. Beautiful islands poke out of crystal clear waters. A perfect white coast lines a thick green forest as waves turn over just before arriving to their beach destination. Only in a very few cases are the pieces of tropical paradise dotted with houses, only on rare occasions can I see boats touring the waters, and there are nearly no roads what so ever. Perhaps Panama has been forgotten as a travel destination because of the overpowering preconceived notion that this part of the world, right next to Colombia, is dangerous, or maybe its because thoughts of Panama are generally linked directly to the canal that so often unjustly defines the entire country.

Island Paradise off the Coast of Panama

Island Paradise off the Coast of Panama

The same Island…

Our plane dives from the coast inland and we are given our first glimpse of the Darien Jungle. Like a fortress wall the jungle marks the end of flat farmlands and the beginning of pure wilderness. It’s no wonder that people have chosen this as their place to hide, it’s no wonder that there still exist completely intact populations of indigenous people here in the depth of this rain forest. It almost looks like a fake setting as we fly over it. It is too thick to see individual trees, instead we see a blanket of green foliage which occasionally ripples to form hills.

A bank of mountains appears in the distance still green in colour, but a lighter tone than the low lands. From their heights brown rivers meander like a cobra through forest floor seemingly unsure of which direction to take on their way to the coast.

The Darien Jungle

The Darien Jungle

A River in the Darien Jungle

A River in the Darien Jungle

Meandering River

Meandering River in the Darien

We make a hard turn to try and avoid a fierce looking cloud which comes alive occasionally with lightning. We bank closely to the mountains as I look around the plane to see if any of the other eight passengers on board seem concerned about the cloud, or the fact that the pilot still remains engrossed by his book; they don’t. I wonder to myself what he’s reading and take a picture of the book to see if I can get a title from the page when I zoom in; I can’t.

Then, through the clouds a hole in the sky opens just wide enough for us to fit through. As we squeeze through it becomes clear to everyone on board that paradise sits somewhere just below us. The other passengers, none of which are tourists seem impressed with the view as well.

The Darien Coast

The Darien Coast

the Darien Coast

Another shot of the Darien Coast

Puerto Obaldia

Approaching Puerto Obaldia

Puerto Obaldia

Puerto Obaldia

Houses dot a calm bay and I realize that we must have arrived. I look into the tiny cockpit to see the pilot put down his book and put his hand on the throttle over his head and put us into a gentle decent. As we hit the pavement the plane jumps a couple times before settling down for good. We are met at the air strip by a curious mix of Spanish speaking people of African decent, Latinos and indigenous people. I take a deep breath, toss my light bag over one shoulder and make my way through the crowds onto the car-free streets and begin my journey to Colombia.

Puerto Obaldia

Just before we touch down in Puerto Obaldia

Puerto Obladia

On lookers just off the airstrip in Puerto Obladia

Indigenous women meeting their family members at the landing strip

Look for the rest of the story in late December…


Author: Brendan van Son

Author: I am a travel writer and photographer from Alberta, Canada. Over my years as a travel photographer, I have visited 6 of the 7 continents and more countries than I have any desire to count. If you want to improve your skills, be sure to check out my travel photography channel on Youtube . Also, check out my profile on . to learn a little bit more about me and my work.

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14 Comments

  1. Love the photos! especially the 2nd and the 3rd ones. Did you photoshop that blurry effect on the sides by any chance πŸ˜‰

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    • @Amer – the blur effect is actually an in camera edit that the 60d can do. Otherwise it’s also possible to do this in photoshop using a gradient blur, or using a tilt-shift lens also gives the effect to a degree. πŸ˜€

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  2. Fascinating- One of the last ‘unvisitable’ places in the world. Someday, much like the rest of Columbia, it will be a tourist magnet. I have a feeling it might be a while, but someday.

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    • @Erik – The big difference between the Darien and Colombia, is that Colombia at least had the infrastructure in place. Most of the Darien, even the National Park, has little to no road/path systems. I can see the coast, where I went, becoming popular… I doubt the jungle will be a hit with the tourist community any time soon.

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  3. Awesome photos Brendan, they look like toy villages or something. Can’t wait to read the whole article in a few months time.

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    • @Cole – Thanks it was an amazing journey, and I can’t wait to share it.

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    • @Maria – Graciasssss

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  4. That sounds like quite a plane journey πŸ™‚ I was just wondering about the photos, about what tilt-shift lens you were using. Didn’t know that a camera could do that. Anyways, great photos.

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    • Jarmo – Actually not a lens. There are two ways to do that postprocessing. One is to do it in photoshop using a gradient tool system (youtube the video tutorial it’s quite easy). My Canon60d actually does it all in camera after you shoot if you want to do it, which is awesome. Also, most of the new canon point and shoots have a setting called “miniature” which gives this affect as well.

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  5. Love the perspective – those shots of the river through the dense foliage remind me of shadow box projects for science fairs and whatnot back in school. Nice unintended effect and very pretty.

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  6. Those are some rad views. I like how you’ve selectively blurred certain parts of your photos to draw the viewer into a particular section.

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  7. Love the aerial shots of the jungle! Looking forward to the full story of your crossing.

    Heading into the Darien tomorrow myself… can’t $%#&ing wait!

    Your post just reminded me that I need to go buy a machete today… πŸ™‚

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  8. Hi Brendan, quite fascinating!

    If you can help me out with any information about doing that journey, I’d be more than happy!! Many thanks πŸ™‚

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